One of the most welcome developments in education practice and policy of the past half decade has been the surprising momentum around the science of reading. To be sure, it’s been a sober reckoning for teachers and administrators, many of whom have come to recognize they were “sold a story“ about effective reading instruction and have been forced to reconsider much of what they thought they knew. The gap between what teachers assumed to be best practice and what reading research tells us raises uncomfortable questions, seldom asked: How much faith should parents have that their child’s school and teachers understand good literacy instruction? And if schools and teachers are shaky on effective practice, how much do parents need to know to advocate for their children and raise strong readers?
This unspoken tension—how much trust is owed to an education establishment that got it so wrong for so long—informs a new poll of parents with elementary school-age children, conducted by the Public Opinion Strategies and Impact Research.
Parents think education is going poorly in the U.S. but also think their own child’s teacher is excellent. No surprise there; that’s a consistent and reliable finding stretching back decades. Perhaps it’s therefore also no surprise that it’s mirrored in parents’ view of reading instruction: North of 90 percent think their child’s school and teacher do a “good” or “excellent” job teaching reading. Very few parents perceive a “crisis” in reading instruction, regardless of whether their children attend a public or private school—even if they have an IEP or are enrolled in a gifted-and-talented program. A mere 13 percent of parents rate their child’s reading as behind grade level, and even those parents tend not to hold teachers and schools accountable. They still hold overwhelmingly positive views of both.
The poll also shows that a healthy share of parents with elementary-school-aged children report reading with their children “at least a few nights per week.” It’s remarkably consistent (albeit self-reported) across all subgroups of parents: men (69 percent) and women (73 percent); Black (79 percent) and White (72 percent); college graduates (74 percent) and non-grads (69 percent). Overall, the poll finds more than four-fifth (82 percent) of parents are “confident” or “very confident” in their child’s ability to read.
But is that confidence misplaced? The poll’s authors and promoters clearly want to cultivate a sense of urgency among parents—and some healthy skepticism. To wit, one striking revelation in the poll is the substantial shift in perception after parents are presented with a troubling statistic: Just 32 percent of American fourth graders are proficient in reading, according to National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores. Upon hearing this, 61 percent of parents expressed that reading instruction is either in crisis or going poorly. This, it must be noted, is a complicated and even contentious point. Critics, such as Tom Loveless in a 2016 Brookings paper, have long argued that “proficient” on NAEP assessments does not equate to reading at grade level. (It’s higher!)
The open question is just how well informed parents need to be to advocate effectively for quality reading instruction, and how much science of reading do they need to understand themselves? Faith Borkowsky, a veteran teacher and literacy consultant, worries that parents might get information from their child’s teacher that is unreliable or that doesn’t help them support their developing reader at home. The teacher might tell parents, for example, that their child is reading at level 2 or 3 (leveled reading is itself a concept of dubious value and provenance). “That’s really no information at all. What are the skill deficits?” asks Borkowsky, author of the 2018 book Failing Students or Failing Schools?: A Parent’s Guide to Reading Instruction and Intervention. “Does the child have the background knowledge to support what he or she is reading, trouble with decoding, blending, or reading polysyllabic words? Tell me where the child struggles so there’s something I can work on. Otherwise, they’re just going to think their child is going to improve just by reading books at a certain level, which of course doesn’t happen. Parents should know that there’s a difference between getting a letter, a book level, and a skill deficit.”
The poll suggests that parents have good instincts about reading instruction and pay close attention to their child’s literacy instruction. Nearly every parent (94 percent) is familiar with “sight word lists or flash cards”; 92 percent with “sound it out” or phonics (86 percent); 90 percent with using pictures or other clues. Not surprisingly, far fewer are familiar with specific tools and methods like “leveled readers” (65 percent), “decodable readers” (36 percent), or “three-cueing” (22 percent). Only about half (47 percent) are familiar with the phrase “science of reading.” And very few parents can describe with confidence the specific curricula and practices their child’s teacher employs.
In his book, Language at the Speed of Sight (2017), the University of Wisconsin’s Mark Seidenberg warned that “parents who proudly march their children off to kindergarten each year...make a big mistake: They assume that their child’s teacher has been taught how to teach reading. They haven’t.”
In short, parents can’t be expected to be reading experts. But they shouldn’t assume their child’s teacher is either.